Black Grape: Pop Voodoo UMC ****
Randy Newman: Dark Matter Nonesuch ****
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life Polydor ****
Twenty years on from Black Grape’s chart-topping debut It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah, its ironic title rings true for frontman Shaun Ryder who is responding to his incorrigible national treasure status with greater productivity than ever before, reforming his post-Happy Mondays party band in tandem with the latest Mondays reunion.
But while the Happy Mondays have the greater overall cultural cachet, it is Black Grape who are first out of the blocks with a comeback album. They are the more flexible outfit, comprising a nucleus of Ryder and rapper Paul “Kermit” Leveridge, whose return to health signalled the return of the band.
Pop Voodoo doesn’t have the raucous anthems of their debut but it is a sleek and satisfying collection, with producer Youth supplying a connoisseur’s mixtape of slinky soul, 70s funk and diverse backing flourishes to Ryder’s extempore street poetry. Over the shuffling funky drummer groove and blasts of feverish saxophone on Everything You Know Is Wrong, Ryder and Kermit trade scattergun banter on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, lampooning the former’s idiosyncratic use of language.
Ryder has his own linguistic tics, a lairy mix of stream-of-consciousness, word association and rhyming couplets which supplies the crude contrast with the sultry 60s ambience of Nine Lives, blithe sunshine pop of I Wanna Be Like You and the vibrant Hammond soul blast of Set the Grass on Fire.
Money Burns is an electro-funk meditation on the fatal attraction and corrosive power of capital, while the smart harmonica-fuelled beat pop of String Theory has carefree echoes of the early days of Madchester before the scene turned dark and heavy. Ryder and Kermit appear to relive those years on brooding coda Young and Dumb, a dubby clubland odyssey about the chemical highs and the comedown lows.
The redoubtable troubadour Randy Newman is the music man to turn to in a global crisis. On Dark Matter, his first album of penetrating wit in almost a decade, he gets stuck in immediately with The Great Debate – that’s science versus religion, dummy – then sabotages any chances of ever holidaying in St Petersburg with Putin, a rollicking jazz hands takedown of the action man beginning with the emasculating image of “Putin puttin’ his pants on”. Brothers revisits the tensions around the Bay of Pigs invasion through the eyes of John and Bobby Kennedy, imagining the real reason for the failed raid – “we’re gonna save Celia Cruz”. But, as ever, Newman gives much more than witty snark. Lost Without You is one of his classic maudlin-but-tender ballads, while She Chose Me is a humble reflection on late-blooming love.
Lana Del Rey proves to be equally consistent on her fifth album, with a brace of breathily stylised songs about dreamy boyfriends and unattainable stars. The Weeknd and A$ap Rocky add sultry R&B and drowsy trip-hop respectively to the mix with their guest contributions. She recruits Sean Lennon for the blatant Beatles referencing Tomorrow Never Came while the original Californian queen bee Stevie Nicks lends her throaty wisdom to the elegantly satirical Beautiful People Beautiful Problems. But then she punctures the languorous rapture with gunshot sound effects on the straight-shooting God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It and, from here on, it’s all about the state of her nation. In recent months, Del Rey has gone from casting a spell on her listeners to advocating a hex on Donald Trump and she frets for future generations on Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind and has US imperialism in her sublime sights on the ethereal When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing.
Dreams & Fancies: English Music for Solo Guitar Delphian *****
What is it about the young Edinburgh-born Sean Shibe that marks him out as one of the foremost guitarists of the young generation? It is quite simply that rare symbiosis of technical mastery and innate musicality. The evidence is there from bar one of this latest album, which is a golden representation of the old and new in English guitar music, from the great Elizabethan John Dowland to 20th century guitar classics written for the doyen of modern guitar playing, Julian Bream, by Walton, Britten, Malcolm Arnold and Lennox Berkeley. Shibe finds effortless poetry in Walton’s Five Bagatelles, revels in the lyricism of Berkeley’s Sonatina, implants glowing affection among the rugged framework of Arnold’s Fantasy, and presents Britten’s masterful Nocturnal after John Dowland with luminous subtlety. Shibe also imbues three Dowland pieces with infinite grace, stylistic integrity, and more than a whiff of original thought.
Mary Ann Kennedy: An Dàn ARC Music ****
Subtitled Gaelic Songs for a Modern World, this is one from the heart, as the singer and broadcaster performs her engagingly melodic settings of recent Gaelic poetry as well as lyrics of her own – including the opening Seinn, Horo, Sein, which finely expresses her commitment to Gaelic song as an ongoing culture. Couched in instrumentation ranging from electric guitar and samples to strings and choir, these songs encompass diverse influences: Òran do dh’Iain Dòmhnallach, for instance, matches a eulogy for a great uncle who vanished into the maw of the Great War with an African work song; another saluting the same great-uncle, Iain Againn Fhìn, is poised in delicate counterpoint to a well-known Tiree song. Kennedy gives eloquent voice to lines by such respected poets as Aonghas “Dubh” MacNeacail and Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul, while George Campbell Hay’s Air Leathad Slèibhe beautifully evokes the poet’s “perfect moment” in the hills, amid echoes and softly chiming guitar.